Veteran Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin’s Dawson, Island 10, Chile’s submission for this year’s best foreign language film Academy Award, tells the story of several prisoners held at a military concentration camp on Dawson Island, Chile’s own Guantanamo back in the days of right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Men who had sided with democratically elected left-wing president Salvador Allende – overthrown by Pinochet’s military (with the assistance of the U.S. government) in 1973 – were sent to desolate Dawson Island at the tip of South America, where they were stripped of both their identities and their civil rights.
Based on Sergio Bitar’s 1987 autobiographical book Isla 10, Littin’s film chronicles the stories of various men held at Dawson Island, among them Bitar (Benjamín Vicuña), renamed “Isla 10” after the number on his barrack. In addition to Vicuña, Dawson, Island 10 features Cristián de la Fuente, Pablo Krogh, Matías Vega, Jose Martín, and Luis Dubó.
Bitar, a former minister in the Allende government, is currently Chilean president Michelle Bachelet’s minister of public works. He and Littin are credited for the Dawson, Island 10 screenplay.
Miguel Littin, a political refugee in the 1970s and the director of the Academy Award nominated films Letters from Marusia (1976) and Alsino and the Condor (1982), has kindly answered a few questions (via e-mail) for Alt Film Guide.
I submitted my questions in English; Mr. Littin answered them in Spanish, and someone from his team translated his responses into English. I’ve made a couple of changes in punctuation for clarification purposes. A couple of other clarifications are in brackets.
Images: Azul Films / VPC Cinema
Why did you decide to tackle what happened at Dawson Isla 10 now, in 2009?
After so many years, the history of these men remained untold, as it had been erased by a dark hand. Therefore it was necessary to tell it and to tell the world; no more concentration camps, no more Guantanamos.
Because we lived the dictatorship hell, it is necessary to remember and project the past to the present so that never again will there be a military dictatorship in Chile.
How did you and author Sergio Bitar collaborate on this project? Did you work jointly on the screenplay, or …?
Sergio and I talked a lot. We went through more than forty hours of documentary material and photographic archives, among other [resources]. We spoke to the survivors. We traveled to the island. I also had his book, Isla 10, which I read countless times. We were both very clear that the book and the film were two different bodies, but with the same soul.
Did the Chilean government in any way try to interfere with your film? What about former members of the Chilean government, those who were around at the time of Pinochet?
No, no one tried to interfere. My character as an independent filmmaker wouldn’t have permitted it.
In terms of your approach to Chile’s political history, how would you compare Dawson Isla 10 to Letters from Marusia or Tierra del Fuego? Would you say the stories are different but the thematic approach remains the same, or …?
There are years of distance. Nothing can be compared to Dawson, which was lived and experienced. More than shooting the story, we revived it at the same place where the facts took place, with the witnesses face-to-face, like looking into a broken mirror from which time escaped. The goal was to capture reality and to delve into it.
How did the Chilean media and public react to Dawson Isla 10?
Theaters were packed and the public’s response was strong. People were very emotional – for some, tears fell; and for some, smiles arose. Whole families were in the screening rooms together and outside people were waiting in line to see the film. To me, this proved that cinema recouped its narrative legitimacy. There’s nothing like the reaction [from the public] for whom the film was made.
Any other projects in the works?
I am working on a new project whose main objective is to illuminate a dark moment of our history. I work daily on scripting and researching the story. Cinema is the projection of dreams, but also a reflection and projection of history.